Patti Bacchus: Premier Horgan comes through with money for brand-new Vancouver schools

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      Premier John Horgan brought $46.9 million worth of good news for two Vancouver communities this Wednesday with an announcement that Begbie and Bayview elementary schools will be replaced by brand-new, seismically safe buildings.

      Following through on his election promise to accelerate school seismic upgrades, Horgan told reporters gathered in the library of Begbie elementary for the announcement that the previous government made school seismic safety a priority in rhetoric but not in reality. He was joined at the announcement by Education Minister Rob Fleming and Attorney General David Eby, who is the MLA for the Bayview school community in his riding of Vancouver-Point Grey.

      Premier John Horgan.

      The news was greeted enthusiastically by Bayview parent Tanya Kyi, who said she “couldn’t be more thrilled with the announcement”. I heard from Kyi many times over the years I spent as a Vancouver school board (VSB) chair and trustee, as she and other Bayview parents tried to convince the Christy Clark government to fund upgrades to their seismically high-risk school. That seemed like a hopeless cause after Clark lost her Vancouver-Point Grey seat in 2013, but things changed for the hopeful after her government lost the 2017 election.

      New direction for school seismic-mitigation program

      Horgan’s announcement this week in Vancouver signals a new direction for the frustratingly slow school seismic-mitigation program that was originally announced by former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell in 2005 (after the grassroots advocacy group Families for School Seismic Safety lobbied to get all of B.C. seismically high-risk schools upgraded).

      After the program was announced, school boards were encouraged to submit proposals for replacement schools in cases where upgrading the old ones cost 70 percent or more of the cost of building a new one. If it was still cheaper to upgrade the school, government would factor in and fund the costs of portables to be used as temporary accommodation during construction.

      After Clark took over as leader, that changed and government moved to a “lowest-cost option” policy, even when that meant pouring millions of dollars into old schools in very poor condition and leaving all kinds of deferred maintenance issues and energy inefficiencies unaddressed.

      Liberals wouldn't fund portables

      They also stopped funding portables and told districts to find space for kids and staff off-site during construction, which, I can tell you, is often much easier said than done and disruptive in even the best of cases.

      That was a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach, as maintenance work still had to get done at some point, and that situation was compounded by the fact that upgraded buildings would have a greater risk of having to be demolished after a significant earthquake compared with new buildings, which are built of all new components to a higher safety standard, increasing their chances of being safe to use after an earthquake.

      The Begbie project—which Horgan announced will get $22.4 million in funding to build a new school in a new footprint on the current site—was submitted for funding approval to the Clark government in the spring of 2014 by the VSB, when the board asked government for $16.1 million to build a replacement school. The estimated cost for upgrading the old one, including the cost of portables during construction, was estimated at the time as $16.8 million. It made sense to build new, but the B.C. Liberal government disagreed.

      Reasons found for cheaper upgrades in past

      The 2014 VSB proposal was rejected after the B.C. Liberal government decided it wouldn’t fund the portables, which were estimated to cost $4.3 million, so it—voila!—became cheaper to just upgrade the old school. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough space in nearby schools to accommodate students during construction unless they were split up three or more ways, which was considered not to be “viable” by VSB’s project team.

      Then came the Clark government’s 95-percent capacity demand in the summer of 2014 that required the VSB to come up with a long-range facility plan that brought the school district’s average capacity to 95 percent, according to a controversial government formula, while the VSB was, by government calculations, at about 85 percent. Begbie’s “capacity utilization” was calculated at only about 69 percent.

      That put the Begbie project on the back burner known in governmentspeak as the “business development phase”, otherwise known as, “We’ll see about this… One day. Or not.”

      But that all changed with the election of a new government and this week’s announcement to get on with building brand-new schools to replace the high-risk Begbie and Bayview buildings.

      Good deal for students, parents, and taxpayers

      It’s great, long-awaited news for students and parents, who will get safe new buildings, and for taxpayers, who won’t be throwing good money into crappy old buildings. They’ll have safe, modern, energy-efficient schools to serve generations to come. One could get used to a government that makes smart decisions that make sense for the long term.

      Instead of pressuring the VSB to close schools and bring the capacity-utilization rate up, the Horgan government is doing what I and others have advocated for all along: “right size” schools, and building smaller replacements if they really don’t need all the space they have in the seismically high-risk buildings. That’s the plan for Begbie—and exactly what the VSB proposed three-and-a-half years ago. Just think: it could have been done by now.

      The current Begbie building has space for 490 kids but the new one will be built for 340 kids, which is more than current or projected enrollment. Bayview’s new school will be built for the same number of students as the current one: 365.

      Another big plus for Begbie is that instead of being bussed to multiple sites during construction, students and staff will simply stay in their old building until the new one is built on another part of the school site.

      Demolition needed despite heritage value

      I expect there will be some opposition to the Bayview project from heritage advocates, as it was at the top of Heritage Vancouver’s 2016 most-endangered heritage sites list. The VSB spent years looking at options for upgrading the building, but it is in awful condition and would be expensive and difficult to upgrade and likely not as safe or educationally functional as a completely new building. I’m sympathetic to heritage concerns, but in Bayview’s case building a brand-new building is the right decision.

      The Bayview site is too small to build a new school in a different spot than the old one, so the plan is to demolish the old one and build the new one in the same spot. Students and staff will be bussed to another site yet to confirmed, but bet on that being portables at Queen Elizabeth elementary that were installed to accommodate Jules Quesnel elementary students several years ago while their school was upgraded.

      Both new schools are scheduled to be built by late 2021.

      Horgan noted at the VSB announcement that there are still 181 B.C. public schools at risk of significant structural damage or collapse in an earthquake 12 years after the B.C. Liberal government promised to upgrade them. It’s a long list to get through, but this week’s announcement was a heck of a good start.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.